Following on from my late sowing theme last month, I’m not sure whether sowing winter salads constitutes late sowing for this year or early sowing for next, but since it is a ploy to provide winter salads all year round I don’t think it really matters.
Just because it’s October doesn’t mean that sowing and growing needs to stop. If you have a greenhouse then it is your duty to use it all year round.
Given that we’ve already had the hottest October on record and that they’ve forecast snow for the end of the month, the greenhouse is about the only way to keep things on an even keel. Of course we all know about broad beans, pea shoots and oriental salads that can be late sown, but what about crops from other shores?
If you look to other countries and the weather that their plants must endure, it’s a great indication of what will grow well when our own climate is a little haywire. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as winter beckons. I don’t and won’t heat my greenhouse; instead it has to harness the solar radiation to keep my plants alive. But I still want it to be productive over the winter months. Even hardy plants will have their growth checked by extreme cold, so you need to look for plants that are known to resist low temperatures and then do your best to nurture them whatever the weather. A greenhouse is a vital aid in this quest.
Italy may not be your first thought when you think of cold weather, but don’t forget it is mountainous and although many parts enjoy the warmer Mediterranean climes, 74% is alpinous and often cold. The range of Franchi Seeds (0208 427 5020) includes whole host of interesting, hardy, winter salads, including ‘Meraviglia d’inverno San Martino’ (Winter Marvel of Saint Martino) from the San Martino valley that reached a ridiculous -43.8C in previous winters. It’s the coldest area of Italy and this lettuce can be sown from July until December in the protection of a cold frame or cold greenhouse. It seems to be heaven sent for my greenhouse, so it’s already been sown and has started to sprout in just hours, rather than days. Then there’s Lettuce ‘Ciucca” which means tipsy in Italian because it has red outer leaves like a drunk. It’s another alpine lettuce that can be sown in September and October or January to April. And there’s even a lettuce that likes the cold and prefers to be sown in autumn for a protected winter harvest or spring while it’s still cool. It’s called Parella, there are red and green variations, I sowed a few of both and though they probably won’t appreciate being sown in the early October heat wave, there are so many seeds in every packet that I’ve got plenty left over for a dozens of successional sowings and I’m not kidding, there’s so many you could literally sprinkle them on your Neapolitan ice-cream – no don’t they might germinate. And that’s another great thing, far from these being a last attempt at sowing for a winter crop, these plants actually prefer the cold and are better autumn sown. I also broadcast some of the Mixed Autumn/Winter Lettuce, which contains a variety of cut and come again, salad leaves that can be sown into October for winter harvest.
I’ve also sown a Franchi Seed frilly spinach called Spinach Riccio d’Asti, which is autumn or spring sown and perfect for adding to your favourite pasta dish. It’s from the Asti Spumante region so has a great pedigree!
My final sowing from the Franchi Seeds range is a mix of red and green Chicory Mix ‘Bis’. In the cold weather these plants make the rosette shape and are less bitter when winter grown. Harvest the leaves initially and the plants will then form the classic rosette shaped leaf formation. The healthy Italian diet is one that we strive to replicate in the UK and yet many find the bitter taste of chicory just too much. But chicory is really good for the digestion and for the stomach. Grow them now and the leaves are less bitter in the cold. Add some honey to your salad dressing to counteract any bitterness or follow an old Venetian trick and soak them in cold salty water for 30 minutes before washing, this removes some of the bitterness.
So next time you need a little inspiration on sowing something seasonal, look to our European neighbours whose climate mimics our own but veers towards the extremes. But after the unseasonable start to October perhaps I should have looked at a few Mexican crops as well.